Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is in command of a cargo ship en route to Mombasa, Kenya. Aware of the pirates patrolling the Gulf of Aden, he insists on being vigilant of the potential dangers of the voyage. Soon enough, two boats with armed men are in pursuit of Maersk Alabama. The leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is extremely determined to get aboard the ship, take hostages, and receive millions of dollars in exchange. Although the massive ship is running full speed, the boats inch closer by the second.

Half of “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass, is a good movie—heavily entertaining and with a solid handle on the human drama between Somali pirates and Americans who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The first half is strong; the second half is fatigued. Meanwhile, Greengrass employs his usual tricks which work only some of the time.

With the exception of the first scene between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener), which is at best an awkward miscalculation, the first forty to fifty minutes builds tension so elegantly and so convincingly, I discovered my hands clamming up in anticipation. You know you are watching something genuinely suspenseful and thrilling when the trailer reveals certain information but that knowledge goes out the window and you feel you are caught in the middle of the conflict being portrayed on screen. In other words, the pirates will get on the ship but you root for them to fail anyway.

The two boats chasing the cargo ship is Greengrass at his best. The editing is quick and sharp but never incomprehensible. He is in complete control of the camera as emphasis is placed on the urgency of what ought to be done in order to accomplish a goal. From the Americans’ perspective: communicating with proper authorities to seek aid, gaining a whole lot of speed, getting defenses set up, and a possible Plan B. From Somali pirates’ side: maintaining speed but not to the point where their boats can be overturned by the waves.

In addition, the camera captures the many expressions of Captain Phillips, from determination, anticipation, increasing fear, and surrender. Though we get only glimpses of Hanks during the high-speed pursuit, there is enough detail in his voice, body movement, and facial expressions to communicate to us what his character might be feeling or thinking during a particular snapshot. He is an extremely efficient performer and it is a complete joy to watch him near the top of his game.

But the second half left me unimpressed. Most of it takes place in a small space which gives us a whole lot of time waiting for something significant to occur. In addition to utilizing a much slower pace, the general approach involves repetition: a cycle of physical and verbal violence then a period of waiting. Captain Phillips’ struggle verges on boredom.

Instead of being inspired to lean closer, I found the close-ups and shaking of the camera repulsive. It is as if the director wants so badly for us to be in the moment that he neglects to just leave the camera be and trust that we are already emotionally involved in the conflict. As a result, instead of being in the moment as I was during the first half, I found myself noticing the craftsmanship and, more importantly, a lack of control with regards to the elements that should, in a theory, make the drama work.

“Captain Phillips,” based on the screenplay by Billy Ray and Richard Phillips’ book, is elevated by an ace performer, but the director needs to learn new tricks or at least be willing to go back to basics in order to tell parts of his story more effectively.

11 replies »

  1. Hi Franz, interesting review, thanks. I totally agree re the unevenness between first and second halfs. But for me, the problem wasn’t the ‘small space’ – I felt the claustrophobia – but the way the military intervention was handled. I found it a bit unsatisfactory – not quite deep enough really to care about the naval officer/negotiator on a character level but not suspenseful enough on an action level either…(although I’m sure it was realistic). I wasn’t clear what those Navy SEALs actually achieved when they parachuted – albeit photogenically – into the water! I also found Tom Hanks’ Tom Hanksiness started to come through in the second half…but overall I did enjoy the film and thought both Hanks and Abdi were ace.

    • You definitely have a point there. I thought the way they acted was sort of… I don’t know, messy? But that can be forgiven if the execution were better handled. Maybe Greengrass was in a rush to submit the movie.

  2. I liked the movie, but I did feel it became redundant – but at the same time it’s based off a true story, so it’s forgivable.

    I was actually very impressed by Abdi’s performance – so much that I honestly think he should be nominated for an Academy Award for supporting. He acted with his eyes more-so than relying on dialogue, and that’s the most effective type of acting; particularly for a villain.

  3. Good review Franz. I loved this movie, which was totally surprising to me considering I thought I already got a good, Somalian pirate movie earlier this year with A Hijacking. However, I was very so wrong.

  4. Nice review man, I was surprised that I liked this movie. I didn’t expect it to be that good, but as you said Hanks was great here. I saw something that I thought funny, You know how you felt in the second half of the film with the camera? Well that’s exactly how I felt, but with the first half.

    The boat scene was pretty intense, but a lot of the first half If I remember correctly, I thought the editing could have been better, and I was aware of the camera the whole time until I become emotional invested in the Americans. I think the pirate that was always on edge kept me from thinking about the camera because I was just waiting for him to lose his lid.

    • Interesting that you had more issues with the first half. I thought the manic editing had purpose and that the suspense is similar to that of a really good car chase (with no crashes).

      I neglected to mention Barkhad Abdi. He did a good job, too. I am interested to see him on his next role so I can determine if he is not one-note.

      • Ahhhh nice way to put it that makes more sense! Yeah hopefully he’s not, I’m interested in seeing “Patsy” from 12 Years in another film. I had to see that one twice!

  5. This is interesting – a very different viewpoint to the general flavour of mainstream reviews I’ve read so far. Your insight is beneficial for me because I hate shaky-cam close-ups of which you describe. Thanks.

    • I don’t care much for popular opinion. =p I’ll call it as I see it. But, hey, one thing is certain: Tom Hanks does a really good job with his role. I won’t be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination for lead actors. In fact, I’ll be glad if he does.

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